Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Circus Elleboog

On Monday we visited Circus Elleboog, the local youth circus. Their main building is right in the center of the city, but they work at dozens of sites all over Amsterdam. We were amazed to hear some of the facts about this organization:
It's a non-profit which has been around for 60 years! 30 years in their current building.
The vast majority of their funding is from the government, grants and contributions. A tiny fraction comes from student fees.
Their students range from about age 6 to age 22. They teach 1100 kids per week in all of their different locations and programs.
They pride themselves on Social Circus, using circus to connect communities and bring strong values to kids – self-esteem, a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging.

We actually had the experience of working with a group of Elleboog kids at the Totem tent last week. Cirque du Soleil brought them in for workshops, as a Cirque du Monde outreach program. It was a nice experience for the Totem artists, having a chance to teach, and to meet some kids from the community.

Here is a picture of Bert, the facility manager, showing us the archives area of Elleboog - they keep photo albums of the entire 60-year history of the school! He was one of the people who gave us a really nice tour of the space, explaining the workings of the school.

It is so exciting for me to visit places like this, to see first-hand how circus education is being done in other parts of the world.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Quotes of the day:

Isa: "Mommy, we should go to the store and buy all the things we don't have."

Ayla: (when I tried to teach her some French words) "Mommy, I'm sorry to have to say this. David, my teacher, is a real French person - French is his first language. You are not. If you want, on Wednesday when I have French class, I can learn some words and come home and teach them to you."

And for Baz, not a quote, but he took apart the vacuum cleaner today and showed me how it worked.

I took the kids to Rembrandhuis. (picture of them here with the audio-tours) It's right around the corner from us, the house where Rembrandt van Rijn lived during the prime of his career in the 1600s. It is a small museum but very interesting - furniture restored the originals, stories of Rembrandt's life, and an upstairs studio showing where and how he made his paintings.

There was an artisan there demonstrating how they made paint in Rembrandt's day, mixing various oils and powders in a fairly labor-intensive process. The kids were fascinated, standing right up close. Suddenly, Ayla turned to me, her face white. She said her belly hurt, and it was "hard to see". She clung to me, weak in the knees, and I got her to a corner of the room to sit down. It seems she got too close to the turpentine, and the fumes of it nearly caused her to faint. It was a worrisome moment - she broke into a sweat, got dizzy and headachy, and had to lie down on a bench. We had to cut our visit short to get her out for some fresh air, and within about a 1/2 hour she was back to herself.

Here's a particularly cool thing in Amsterdam. The interiors of the metro trains are all decorated with different kinds of art. Everything imaginable - abstract, fantastical, photographic, you name it. There are so many different designs, that we rarely enter a train we've been in before - and we have been here two full months, taking the metros several times a day. I photographed this one, which the kids and I particularly enjoyed, it features stick figures climbing ladders all over some bizarre kind of world. The artist had a Web site posted: Cindy Schriekenberg

And a last image for today, a Russian tradition - whenever someone has a birthday, vodka is brought out, and there is toasting in the kitchen after the show. This was Aliaksey's birthday, one of the Russian bar porters. Notice the Santa Claus and Christmas tree in the background - the kitchen is decked out for the holidays!

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I wish I had more to write about this week, but the truth is, it's been a pretty slow few days.
Not a whole lot going on.
(which you know, is never a happy place for me to be.)

The high points of my week so far have been:
- working at the Cirque du Monde event on Thursday - a welcome chance to flex my teaching muscles, putting Dutch children on a trapeze
- good conversation / bonding with a couple of the Russians on site, as they help me grapple with the language
- Christmas shopping
- today we had the first snow of the season

In the meantime, I've been knitting, and reading. Isa has projects too - she works on her alphabet, and going to the potty all by herself, and picking out her own clothes, and coloring, and organizing her dolls. Today we spent an hour in the library, each of us lost in our own books. I felt like we could have stayed there all afternoon, if laundry and lunch and errands weren't calling...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More exploring

We continue to make the most of our time here. I chaperoned a school field trip last week to the Anne Frank House. (here is a photo of the six schoolkids) I was impressed, actually, with how much the little ones were able to absorb. In general, the House is recommended for ages 10 & up, and it's actually free for those under 10. But the story itself is fairly simple - bad people wanted to find the Jews and kill them, so this Jewish family went into hiding in this house. Kids love secret hideouts and the simple conflict of good vs. evil, and there are plenty of both elements here.
...I brought Isa along, as well, and I have to admit, she didn't quite get it. She thought, the whole time, that we were searching for the hiding people, and was rather upset when we didn't find them!!

Winter Wonderland street fairs have descended upon Amsterdam. The biggest one is quite close to us in the Rembrandtplein, and it includes an ice rink, a carousel, and food and game stands galore. Here is Isa partaking of one of the kids' favorite Dutch treats - oliebollen. It's somewhere between a donut and fried dough, in a ball.
(like the mittens on strings? is there a more iconic image of childhood, than mittens on a string?)

Today we went to Dam Square and checked out the animated display windows in De Bijenkorf, Amsterdam's big central department store. Isa was delighted, although I've got to say, these windows pale in comparison to the American versions, like Macy's in New York City. I think the Dutch have strengths in other areas.

...today has been such a full, and enjoyable day. Yoga class with Holly. Wandering the city streets with Isa. Little girls' ballet class. Going out for a drink with Kitsie and Chris, who are visiting from the States. Playgroup-organizing. Sending emails to old friends. All I need is to dig into a good novel before bedtime, and inner peace is achieved, for today at least...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Random small thoughts

In Amsterdam, if you are not into pot-smoking and nightclubbing, you walk.
And by "walk", I mean roam, wander, stroll, over the bridges and down the cobblestoned streets and beside the canals, drinking in the lights and the cool air and the lively energy of the city. There are surprises around every corner - street musicians, monuments, tiny dogs, tiny cars. Yesterday a man set up a kiddie pool full of soapy water in a small plaza, and began creating huge bubbles, welcoming children, who flocked around to give it a try.

Playgroups are awesome. Today I had four little girls playing at my apartment. They were fun, and reasonably well-behaved. It made the afternoon more interesting and enjoyable for me and Isa, and gave a couple hours' break to some other Moms. There seems to be no bad side to this arrangement.

With kids, you end up having to explain a lot of things that you wish you didn't. And I'm talking about 6 and 7 year olds here - we haven't even gotten to the really tough stuff! This month I've had to field questions about words and concepts like
blackface makeup
Go ahead, just try to come up with a first-grade level explanation for these things. (and let me know if you find any good ones!)

I have been reading the Narnia books to my kids at bedtime for the last couple of months. When people claim things about hidden subtexts in books, I am usually very skeptical. But holy cannoli! This is not a hidden subtext! Reading the Narnia books as an adult, you don't have to go searching for Christian references. The whole damn series is the Bible in costume. I find myself cringing reading it to my kids, but I have to just let it go, they have no idea what they're being fed.

My last bit of news is just a personal reflection. I have been dealing with quite a bit of adversity lately. But to my surprise, I've been handling it better than I usually do. It even approaches "equanimity", something quite foreign to my temperament. Could I be maturing, as I approach my 35th birthday?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Hague & Madurodam

Monday, we took an ambitious day trip to The Hague. We spent the day wandering the streets of the city, looking for historic buildings, and finished the afternoon at Madurodam, the extraordinary miniature village in the north part of the city. As expected, the children loved this place!


Mom and Dad visiting

Get ready for photos and videos!! It’s been a whirlwind few days of tourism, with my parents visiting from Massachusetts.

On Saturday we took Isa to the zoo (the other kids were in school.) Mom and Dad thought it was particularly funny to see the exotic North American Raccoons at the zoo here.

And I have to post this clip of the Spectacled Bear at the Artis Zoo. I've seen this bear on a couple of different occasions now, and this is what he does, all day long:


I find it an amusing little routine, but I wonder, should I be alarmed? Is it normal or healthy for bears to have rituals like this?

In the evening on Saturday, we babysat for a couple of little French girls - Kiana, age 2, and Clarisse, age 7 weeks!! For awhile we also had the Russian boys, Igor and Ilya, visiting, so it was quite a houseful. As you can see, I couldn't have pulled this off without my parents.

Sunday was a special day in Amsterdam - the traditional arrival of their Santa Claus, who is called Sinterklaas.

The Amsterdam.info Web site explains it the best: "Saint Nicholas arrives to Amsterdam by ship and upon landing, rides on a white horse through the city center in a festive parade. Large crowds of children greet him and his entourage – as he is usually surrounded by no less than 500 Black Peter servants, 10 marching bands and hundreds of festive marchers."

It was really a fascinating, and odd, day. We walked over to the waterfront to see the boats arriving, and watched Sinterklaas disembark from the boat and greet the mayor. Then we found a spot along the parade route to watch the procession.

Here's a video clip of us waiting for Sinterklaas's arrival. Don't be too disappointed that you don't get to see the man himself - he was too far away to see well with my tiny camera. But you do get to hear the rockin' Dutch Christmas carols.


The parade was different in a few ways from most parades I've been to in the States.
1. All of the volunteers - security staff, drivers of floats, marching bands, etc. were all dressed up in the same Black Peter costumes, which look a bit like a medieval jester in blackface makeup. Creepy.
2. Many of the children in attendance dressed up too, like Black Peter or Sinterklaas.
3. Sinterklaas, the guest of honor, was somewhere around third or fourth in the parade. Not at the beginning, and not at the end.
4. The audience didn't clap at all.
5. Hundreds of the Black Peters carried burlap sacks full of loose cookies and candy, which they handed out by the fistful to all of the children lining the route. Kids held out bags, which were quickly filled with treats. No wonder they don't bother with Halloween here.

Sunday continued on - it started to rain, but we took an enjoyable Canal Boat ride anyway. Seeing Amsterdam from the water is always such a different experience. Then, back at the apartments, it was Baby Shower time!

Here's what I wrote when I got home from the baby shower:

I’m exhausted. Russian parties! I keep being the early-bird party pooper, bailing out after about 4 hours with my kids.

Tonight was the baby shower for Nastya, Pavel’s wife. (this is the
other Nastya, not the one I usually hang out with. Nastya #2 speaks not a word of English, but she is a very sweet person!) She is due with her first baby in a few weeks. It was supposed to be a surprise, so we arrived promptly at 6:00. But Natasha, who organized it, just waited till everyone else arrived (close to 6:30) and then went downstairs and invited Nastya up. What if Nastya wasn’t home?? … in any case Nastya arrived in a bright-colored bathrobe, was heartily surprised, and excused herself to go change into some other clothes for the party.

We English/French/Spanish-speakers had no idea what the plan was, throughout the evening, so we just went along with whatever happened. All of the children were parked in front of a DVD. Food and drink was dug into. And then they started pulling out game after game. Somehow I’ve been spared baby-shower games in my first 34 years of life? …but now I have had the experience. A fun one was “name that baby” – we all sent in photos of our little ones as babies, and we had to guess who everyone was. We all failed miserably. A really-not-fun one was “name that baby food” – jars were covered up, and we had to taste the purees and guess them. I could really have spent my life happily without ever playing that game. And then there were the games that were just kind of hopeless with the mix of languages – like guessing the new baby’s name, or listing baby words that began with the letters of the Mom’s name. There were only a handful of us non-Russians there.

By 9:30pm, a few of us were fading (the non-Russians) and started to make noises about leaving, but then Natasha announced that it was time to open the presents. (presents?? …Natasha asked everyone to contribute 20 euros, instead of a gift. I thought the plan was to get Nastya a gift card. Instead Natasha just went out and bought a bunch of gifts, from everyone. My confusion with Russian customs just goes on and on.)

Overall, though I don't seem to have the stamina for these get-togethers, a wonderfully warm feeling was created last night. There were 14 women there, toasting the mom-to-be, laughing and sharing stories and common ground. It was a really supportive group. I'm excited for Nastya as she welcomes her baby, and I'm excited for all of us, that we have each other.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Images from the last few days

Yesterday was the 4th birthday party of Ilya, a child of a Russian Bar acrobat. It was held at the esteemed TunFun, and I made a very short movie so you can get a glimpse of this place.. .


Then, a few odds and ends of photos here in Amsterdam.

Greg buys these Big American frozen pizzas now - "Texas Style!" ...obviously the makers of these pizzas have never actually been to Texas. But the funniest thing is, there are instructions on the back in many, many different languages - except for English. ? It leads me to believe that they don't expect any actual Americans to buy these things.

Here's an innovation I like. The libraries here have a self-check system that I've never seen before. You scan your card, then put your books - a pile of them, up to 8 - on the platform. The machine can scan all the titles at once. You confirm on the touch-screen if it got everything correct. Once in awhile it misses a book,and you can rearrange the stack. It's incredibly quick and easy, like an X-ray library checkout.

And for one Totem image of the day - here's a picture looking up at the truss in the artistic tent, where one of the riggers is doing an inspection. They do thorough inspections at least once a week. I've been really impressed with their rigging staff, incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guys.

Onwards! A new week, Greg has just 9 shows this week and is able to go in a little later for training, so it should be a not-too-exhausting time ahead.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Literary thoughts

Tonight was the first meeting of the Totem Book Club, which I thoroughly enjoyed - wine, cheese, and a discussion of Brave New World with a group of world travelers. Conversations ranged from straightforward book analysis, to more general philosophizing about life, work, happiness, failure, limitations, and cultural differences.

I'm in the middle of a couple of other books right now. One is How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen, an essay collection. Though I'm skimming through some of it, a quote jumped out at me today that I relate to:

"...I admit an almost physical craving for the comforts of the suburban mall. Natural opiates flood my neural receptors when I step from the parking lot into the airlock...I have cash in my wallet, my skin is white, and I feel utterly, utterly welcome...
"My craving for city life feels entirely different... cities represent an older, less advanced stage in the development of buying and selling, in which producers work cheek by jowl with consumers and the whole economic mechanism is open to inspection and so is less susceptible to the seamless enchantment of modern sales pitches; and, more generally, that there's something in the very nature of cities which enforces adult responsibility... it's far easier on the streets of New York to have experiences that have nothing to do with the spending of money than it is in the typical galleria."

I'm in a sitting-and-reflecting frame of mind because today is Sunday. Isa came down with a stomach flu, so I had to take care of her, and Baz, Ayla and I have been stuck in the apartment all day. Sad to see the sun come out, from our 3rd-floor window, a rare, missed opportunity.

Even without Isa being sick, Sundays are typically our day at home. It’s the day when the kids can stay in their pajamas, when we read and play card games and sometimes watch a movie. I really hate Sundays. Although I feel like a bad parent for not being able to enjoy this “down” time, the truth is, I can’t. Give me a chance to take my kids out for a walk, or to a museum, or anywhere, and I would have a much better time. I had promised myself that last week was the last time I would sit around all day. So now I’ll say it again – today, this is the last Sunday of complete inactivity for the Kennedy clan.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A hard week

My efforts at community-building have hit some roadbumps this week, and I’m feeling discouraged.

I was having a harder and harder time managing all of the school kids, taking them back and forth on my school-transport days. (we were taking turns.) I finally told the other parents I need a break - I want to just be responsible for my own three little ones for a while. In some ways this is harder, since I now have to bring them to and from school every day - it means there is time to do very little else. But at least it is just my kids - I know how to handle them, and I think this is going to bring my stress level down (I've been tearing my hair out, the last week or two, over this).

It means I'll be able to take advantage of the playgroups even less, since I'll be busy trekking from the site every evening.

And then, I found out today that I can no longer teach aerial lessons or kids' gymnastics classes in the Artistic Tent. The short story is that it's a liability problem for Cirque, and as much as they want to be welcoming to family members, the Artistic Tent needs to be reserved as a space for the artists. I fully understand this. But I am a little sad, because I was starting to enjoy some of these new activity groups that were coming together.

All this stuff, on top of recovering from a bad head cold earlier in the week, has left me somewhat adrift. It may take me a couple of days to re-locate my optimism.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Greg has a rare "double-dark" this week - Monday and Tuesday both off. We decided to use one of the days to get out of the city, and ventured out of Amsterdam to a little town called Naarden.

Naarden is a beautiful place. It's said to be the only remaining completely fortified town in the Netherlands - essentially a snowflake-shaped walled town. It is a great place to bring kids, as they can climb all around the embankments. In a couple of hours we managed to traverse the entire perimeter of the town, mostly from atop the walls.

It fascinated us to see how many offices and residences have been built into the old fortifications. Like hobbit-holes, only much bigger and more elaborate. Sometimes, while walking along the tops of the walls, we were looking down into people's glass roofs.

It was a chilly, gray day, and we hadn't anticipated all of the wet grass - all of our sneakers and jeans were thoroughly soaked, making us eager to get home for warm dry stuff at the end of the day. But we still very much enjoyed the adventure.

Monday, November 1, 2010


As expected, our Halloween festivities at Totem were great fun. It was a two-day extravaganza - on Saturday, the school kids organized a day of pumpkin-decorating, cookie-making, and an elaborately designed haunted-house.

On Sunday, there was trick-or-treating around all of the offices on site, and then a grown-up Halloween party after the shows ended in the evening. (we missed that. Had to get the sugared-up kids home and cleaned up!)

Here are the best pictures I have of Baz, Ayla and Isa's costumes. Baz was an Emperor of Evil, Ayla was a bride, and Isa was a skeleton. ("But not a scary skeleton. A happy skeleton!)